Organic wine, the new mistress of the French heartland – beautifully seductive and the hottest girl in town or country. Everybody wants to have her, and to listen to the marketing spiels, everybody’s got her. Whew, what a dame!
But French mistresses have a reputation for artifice. I’ve been keen to see for myself to what extent organic wine is really organic, or how much of it is just a makeover that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. I’m tired of hearing, at too many tastings, wine producers from France (and Italy) say “my wine is organic; it just isn’t certified”, as if it’s irrelevant. Certification means you’re following a process, allowing others to check on it and verify you’re following agreed standards.
France’s certification body is Bioagricert, which notes that from the end of 2014 to the end of 2015 the number of vineyard hectares certified or under conversion increased by 8.7%. But the total is still only some 58,000 hectares of a total of 792,000 hectares of French vineyard.
Heading south for a Rhône harvest
September is when the French heartland is at its enchanting best for a food and wine lover, so last September I headed south from Geneva to photograph the 2016 grape harvest near Orange, in the Chateauneuf-du-pape wine region. My mission was to photograph the harvest of some 150-year-old vines, grown organically. I was allowing space in the back of my little yellow Fiat 500 for the wines I planned to buy there.
A friend suggested that as long as I was making the trek, I should head a few kilometres west, to explore wines from the nearby Gard region. Less renowned, less expensive, and in the kind of countryside we all hope still exists in France, outside novels. And I could ask about organic wines.
I suddenly realized that the Gard is Côtes du Rhone Villages country, and I have a soft spot for these wines. When I moved to Paris many years ago, I quickly graduated from drinking semi-plonk to table reds to wines from these 18 southern Rhone river villages – at which stage I thought I had gone to heaven.
Organic is now a buzz word in French wine circles, after years of being pooh-poohed as quirky, something aging hippies might make. Wineries began to realize some consumers wanted wines that were cleaner, as in chemical-free wherever possible. At the same time wine producers began to hear too much about the impact of chemical treatments on their own health.
Much of what is being touted as organic today may not qualify for certification, but serious steps are being taken towards sustainability and healthier approaches to making wine. The wineries want this changeover acknowledged. Some are more honest about what they are doing than others, and I was interested to see where a conversation about this might take us.
Idyllic French wine life
Looking back at my photos now, in winter, with one major knee operation and weeks of exhaustion behind me, a wonderful image of energy in the countryside combined with a sense of timelessness returns: the idyllic (for consumers) French wine life is alive and well. My photos show a golden late afternoon light drifting across fields of grain, vineyards and the stones at Domaine de Gressac (see my article about being a guest on this beautiful estate).
Tractors bearing grapes arriving at a cooperative, where the debate remains hot, to go organic or not.
Lunch in yet another village off the main roads, with one beautiful course followed by another, each paired with a good regional wine and guests who linger in this popular spot that I would never find without local help.
Sisters bending over new labels, two young and dynamic women, who are passionate about organic wines, gradually shouldering the work of the family vineyard.
Attitudes about organic range from the almost missionary zeal of the winemaker at Gressac, to variations on pragmatic and philosophical approaches at Domaine Reynaud (production viticole raisonnée Terra Vitis) and Domaine Clavel (also Terra Vitis), to the admirable – and tough – effort by the Laudun and Chusclan Cooperative to ease, steadily, scores of growers into a more organic future.
Natural wines as a mission
Let’s start at the missionary end of the scale, which means organic but also natural wines, most simply described as organic or biodynamic wines that use different cellaring techniques, notably natural yeasts (more on natural wines).
Gressac came as a surprise to me after Chateauneuf-du-pape, the subject of another article tomorrow. Chateauneuf is relatively flat, densely planted with vines and, like parts of Bordeaux and Burgundy, every intersection points you to a dozen wineries. Wine is what they do.
Cross the broad Vaucluse and Gard rivers into the Gard region, at the northern end of Languedoc-Roussillon, drive 20 minutes and you’re in a land of rolling hills and fields bordered by ancient forests that stretch far into the distance. The countryside is dotted with what the French like to call “villages authentiques“.
Grass owners Laurence and Reto Michelet left Geneva in 2010 with the idea of breeding horses here, and they considered pulling up the old vines here, but instead decided to add winemaking to their venture. The vineyard had for decades been an integral part of the 115-hectare (of a piece) farm operated by a previous owner, Lucien Bondurand, who converted the crops and 12-hectare vineyard to organic in 1970.
I shared a bottle of Bondurand’s 1985 wine – surprisingly still fruity and elegant – with the estate’s winemaker, David Teyssier. This very good organic red rightly serves as his inspiration for the chateau’s lineup of seven wines from nine grape varieties.
He insists that there is no reason why a good natural wine shouldn’t age well, and the 1985 makes a convincing argument. Teyssier has firm ideas about making wine, which don’t include tolerance for non-organic wines. If you’re growing grapes and making organic wine, then you should move straight on to natural ones, period.
The grapes had been harvested, and workers were busy doing post-harvest scrubbing around the cellar. Beyond romance, each of these bits of farming contributes just a portion to overall income, says Laurence Michelet. The wine sells well despite a slightly higher price tag than most area wines, at about €8-17 cellar price, but the production of 2,000 bottles barely covers its own cost, she insists.
The rosé is beautiful to look at and pleasant at the end of a hot day, but it’s the red wines that are interesting. The entry level wine, Lou Gressac 2015 is 100% Syrah, 14% alcohol, a wine you definitely want to pair with food. At €7.90 it is competing with a lot of other regional wine and you’ll buy it mainly because it is a natural wine: as with all the wines here, very little SO2 (sulphur dioxide, used as a preservative in wines and for cleaning barrels), no outside yeasts. “Fou de Grenache” 2014 is fruity, red fruits with a slightly peppery nose, a very fun light wine. “Terre des bois” 2013 is very much in the tradition of fruity southern French wines, made with Grenache and Mourvedre grapes.
They all share a trait common to many natural wines: these can change quickly once the bottle is open. This makes for some interesting wines, but don’t expect the first sip to taste like the last. Some people like the shift towards an animal smell that occurs with some of these wines; I’m not a big fan. “Lou Gressac” was fruity at first, developed an animal nose as we drank, then with swirling, or more frankly agitating the bottle (thank you, David Teyssier, for showing me that trick), the fruitiness resurfaced. Côte du Rhône wines are known for a tendency to have these brett (see Wine Folly’s explanation and a more in-depth, technical article from Wine Anorak) noses, the source of which is a type of yeast.
The two top-end wines were the ones I enjoyed, “Madone” 2013, named for an old statue you come across if you hike up the hillside, and “Rouge Sauvage” 2012, which sports the wild mane of a galloping horse on the label. The first is a Grenache/Syrah blend with good tannins and a smooth black cherry finish spiced by a touch of black pepper. The second, the Gressac wine I rate as tops, is a blend of Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre. It all comes together in this wine, with leather and pepper notes from the Syrah, the red fruit of the Grenache and the tanins and blackberries Mourvèdre can add. A deeply fruity silkiness dominates, in the end, and while a hint of animal is there, it is integrated and the wine is balanced. €16.90 cellar price.
You can find their wines here; the list includes addresses in Switzerland.
A cooperative, shifting gears
The Laudun-Chusclan Vignerons Cooperative in Chusclan (5 minutes by car from Bagnols-sur-Cèze) produces organic wines that are part of a large collection of wines at very competitive prices.
The last of the Syrah harvest was being brought in by local vignerons the day I visited, and the rich smell of fully ripe grapes hung in the air. Tractors pulled up, grapes were weighed, and the workers inside scurryied to keep up with deliveries, ongoing fermentation in the large tanks, cleaning and more.
For size alone, the Chusclan winery is a contrast to Gressac, but so, too, is the approach to winemaking. The growers who are members manage 3,000 hectares of vines, making this one of the largest groupings of vineyards on the right bank of the Rhone. Some 250 families are involved in the joint venture that brought together growers from Chusclan and Laudun in 1998. The average age of the members is 41; 42% are women and 58% men.
Perpignan is just two hours away; it was near there that, in April 2016, yet another in a series of southern French incidents occurred, where angry French growers dumped cheap Spanish wine from tanker trucks. This part of the Gard is not a hotbed of protest, but pressure on wine profits in an increasingly competitive national and international market can make growers wary. David Bernescut, marketing and sales director, says that a cooperative like his has to take the long view and accept that change won’t happen overnight, given so many families of varying situations and attitudes.
Slow and steady
“We’re working to help our growers move towards organic, which is the future,” says David, “and while some are ready to make that move right now, others are not. Margins are tight. They’re worried about making enough money to stay afloat – it takes time to make the transition to organic and initially, production levels dip. It’s a time of transition for several families who are looking for solutions as the change of generations occurs.” The cooperative sees education and encouragement to find healthier approaches to growing grapes and making wine as a key task. “But it will take time,” he notes.
Meanwhile, talking with staff in the cooperative’s shop, I hear great enthusiasm for some of the award-winning organic wines, and I can see why. The sharply acidic whites that are a tradition in the region, perfect served with fish, are well made. “Laudun Côtes du Rhône Terra Vitae” white and red are both very good, both organic, with the red Laudun Côtes du Rhône Villages version even better (70% Grenache Noir, 30% Syrah). One of my favourites was the non-organic “Camp Romain” of mainly Grenache Blanc and Clairette Blanche, with some Viognier/Roussanne. Mineral, with a nose of grapefruit and acacia flowers, a long finish.
Independent, with organic as part of a larger view
I had time to visit just two other wineries in the region, both independent, both embracing the Terra Vitis approach to sustainability. A fairly recent expansion of the original Terra Vitis mandate to provide traceability, transparency and quality means the label now takes into account the overall health of vineyard and cellar staff and consumers, plus the health of the soil and plants in vineyards as well as the areas surrounding these nearby bodies of water.
Claire Clavel is the winemaker at Domaine Clavel in St Gervais, one of the 16 Villages. Her father Denis still helps out, notably in the 80 hectares of vineyard, where the family grows eight grape varieties that go into half a million bottles of wine. The day I visited it was Claire’s enormous energy that was in evidence, with her sister pausing long enough from administrative duties to say hello.
Claire’s enthusiasm for biodynamic winemaking gives its name to the winery’s two top of the line gastronomy wines, Claire de Lune, a white and a red. The red, of 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Carignan and 10% Cinsault, was my favourite of the eight wines here – its elegant and long licorice finish is quite special and makes it an unusual and good match for spicy meats. I also very much liked the pale salmon-pink rosé, with notes of peaches and white flowers.
Surprise! A French Arvine!
I’ll be honest, my real reason for visiting Domaine Reynaud in charming St Siffret is that Luc Reynaud grows Arvine, the grape so dear to Switzerland’s Valais growers, who are rather proprietary about it. I’ve never seen an Arvine outside Switzerland.
It wasn’t my favourite here, but Luc points out that the vines are young and it takes a lot of work and testing to find the right path to making a good wine from a new grape. Arvine, with its good acidity and slightly salty finish, makes sense here, probably as one of the minor grapes in white blends.
Reynaud’s more traditional Duché d’Uzès wines, especially the “Pomyron”, were worth the trip, though.
For years Luc delivered his grapes to a local cooperative, but he dreamed of building his own winery, and in 2000 he produced his first vintage. I found the lineup a bit uneven, with “Cuvée Rubis” 2014, for example, a bit rough around the edges, but the 2013 was more complex, with more fruit – and I reminded myself that these are indeed terroir wines, making the best of the weather of each vintage.
My clear favourite was the IGP Pont du Gard 2013 “Templiers”, Grenache/Syrah/Merlot, a wine that is a good match for red meat and cheese, staples of the cuisine in this gastronomically rich region.
Luc’s willingness to try new methods and new grapes – he was one of the first Terra Vitis growers in the region – is the kind of example that bodes well for the future of sustainable wine production in Gard. The question of certified organic or not has begun to fade for me, given the serious approach to healthier environments (and people) shown by wineries like Clavel and Reynaud, which happily also make good wine.
My sampling was too small to decide whether or not French wineries claiming to be organic are straight with us, but I liked much of what I saw and the wines I tasted were honest wines made with care. I bought a few more than planned.
By the end of my trip I was beginning to worry that my Fiat 500 was too small.
There was just time for one last essential stop: when in the south of France, you must be sure to take time to eat well. In this instance, it was the little Table de Marine in St Michel d’Euzét, bustling at noon, where I left it up to the chef to decide what I should eat, and what wine would fit the food, a wise decision.
This article was revised and minor corrections made 22 February.